The novel centers around the tension of a precocious little Jewish boy named Alessandro who senses the strained currents running through his household ... Levi is a skilled narrator. We sense her quiet restrained presence on every page. She feels ghost-like, translucent, a wisp of a shadow lingering behind the curtains of a dark, gloomy room watching things play out. She never questions her characters’ acquiescence or mourns for their fate. One detects no grief in her expression ... She refuses to indulge in any remote fantasies about ways they might escape; it is as if she has already accepted what fate or God or simply man’s evil has put in place for them simply because they are Jews. She deems herself to be only their transmitter describing the shock waves that run through them ... Lia Levi has a good ear for the chaotic disorderliness of Jewish family life with its endless undertow of grievance, bitterness, and uncertainty that wreaks havoc on the most vulnerable. She understands that the Jewish psyche has been maligned for centuries where Jews have, for the most part, been used and abused and discarded. But what is absent from Lia Levi’s finely wrought narrative voice is anger; an emotion she seems to negate by parsing it into bits of small matter. This weakens her characters’ accessibility to us. They often seem entombed inside a second skin that is impassable — lost in a world without transcendence or liberation or even a sliver of light. There is too much numbness present — perhaps a prerequisite for the author’s own survival, and a means of checking our desires for happy endings.
Kind of a drag ... The writer’s powers of description are impeccable, even in translation, and her sense of the dramatic is on full display in her tale of a Genoan Jewish family caught up in the gears of Italy’s fascist turn. But confusion reigns in this short novel, which introduces characters and plot lines that are quickly dropped, as if Levi, overflowing with ideas, had trouble deciding which to include ... In the chapters about him, you can see the outline of an interesting book, with grand machinations of history and familial strife seen through the eyes of a precocious little boy. But Levi finds so many other characters to inhabit that we don’t spend as much time with Alessandro as we’d like. In such a short book, far too much real estate is occupied by far-flung cousins and other minor characters.
Levi has a lot on her plate here: a historical novel tied to a family saga tied to a psychological portrait of a boy who might or might not be a prodigy. Alessandro would have made a fine focal point for the novel, but Levi seems to lose interest in him. She flits from one character to another without resting. That means, unfortunately, that none of the characters really come alive, and we never learn why Alessandro’s mother is so permanently disappointed or why his grandfather is so annoyed by his own daughters. Too many minor characters clutter these pages, and while some of them occasionally reappear, others only show up once before disappearing. Levi has a fluid style and a clear talent for storytelling, but this novel, at least, is not particularly successful.